Are Your Employees Incompetent—or Do They Just Need Some Help?

Are Your Employees Incompetent—or Do They Just Need Some Help?

“Incorrect staff deployment based on skills”

— Manager

I laughed when I read this comment. What a nice, non-judgmental way to say you’re stuck managing incompetent people. “Incompetent” is so negative, Tim! Good point. These employees have skills, all right—just not the ones they need to do their jobs.

This Manager’s polite observation is every manager’s worst nightmare. On this blog, we’ve been talking engagement strategies for the drained, bored, cynical, stressed and demoralized employees. Even though it’s an uphill battle, one could get an honest day’s work out of those kinds of employees. But what on Earth is a manager to do with a bunch of “incorrectly deployed?” Even a single such individual can cost you your quarterly bonus. Can you imagine the pain of this being a systematic problem?

Sounds like our Manager needs a solution right away. What can she do?

In the business of matching people to jobs, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Hire the right people the first time. No hiring strategy is foolproof, but you can improve your odds if you know what to look for. I have many examples of companies doing just that in Chapter 2 of my book Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?

So, to help this Manager, we need to know what she’s looking for. What kinds of skills is her staff so desperately missing?

Let’s start with hard skills. It’s tough to imagine any company throwing unskilled employees into specialized assignments. However, even the most competent among us need to update their skills now and then.

Can she get them some training?

Training could be expensive. On top of the missed work-hours, the company has to shell out thousands of dollars in course fees. But get this. Where do you think this Manager works? At a vocational school of all places! I checked their website, and they teach all the practical skills you could ever want.

Communication technology? No problem! Computer programming and interactive media? Of course! Commercial and advertising art? You’re in the right place! They even have carpentry and culinary arts. And, just in case you need extra help with English, math, or social studies, they’ve got that too.

I’d be shocked if this Manager’s staff didn’t have all the hard skills they needed to do their jobs. But what about soft skills? Is it a mismatch between employees’ personalities and their job duties and that makes them a challenge? Are we talking an idealistic marketing manager? Or an introverted receptionist?

If you’ve read Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?, you remember that soft skills are the ones hiring managers most often miss. Let me tell you a funny story about that.

One summer when I was in college, I got a job selling Persian rugs at a farmers market. The store’s owner had this great idea that he could unload slow-moving inventory if he took it to the market. That’s where I came in. I was positioned in a hard-to-find corner of the market with waist-high stacks of rugs.

Once a customer found her way to my booth, it became clear why they picked me for the job.

Tim: “Hi, ma’am, may I help you?”
Customer: “Oh, that one all the way on the bottom looks nice. Can I see it?”

The most technical skill required to do my job was flipping 8’x11’ and 9’x12’ rugs. They probably thought they hit the jackpot when a 6’4” former basketball player with long arms and big hands walked through the door.

I turned out to be a big disappointment to my manager. One time, he caught me taking a nap on top of the rugs. The next time he came to check on me, I was wide awake, still on top of the rugs, with my girlfriend lying next to me. At the end of the summer, I sold nothing, and the store fired me for non-performance.

I don’t know if they ever figured out that I was “incorrectly deployed.” I had the right body type, but I wasn’t a salesman. Years later, I would make the same mistake. When I needed someone to do sales for my company, I hired a guy who knew about software and was great at putting together proposals but couldn’t sell a damn thing. It was then that I finally learned to sell and understood what I should have been looking for all along. The most important skill for a salesperson is to help the customer overcome FUD: fear, uncertainty, doubt. A soft skill.

My story also proves another point: you can teach people soft skills. My rug store manager could have done both of us a huge favor by teaching me how to sell. In retrospect, it’s not clear which one of us was more incorrectly deployed: I as a sales guy, or he as my manager.

Either way, it’s easy for the best of us to jump to conclusions when we’re disappointed with someone else’s work. Every manager asks himself a thousand times: “Am I the only one around here who can get the work done?”

Maybe. Maybe not. Take some time to sit down with a struggling employee and figure out what’s going on. Does he have the right personality? Is he teachable? Does he like his job? What kind of help does he need from you? Our best and most loyal employees are not always the ones who “hit the ground running.” More often, they are the ones we’ve helped to learn new skills and grow.


If you want your employees to do a better job, you might like my book, because it will help you help them.

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Written by

Tim Eisenhauer is a co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.


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